1982: Daniel Johnston - Don’t Be Scared
What's intriguing to me about Daniel Johnston isn't the fact that he has bipolar disorder; it's the tension that the disease implicates in his music. I can't help but feel conflicted as to whether or not my enjoyment stems from an appreciation of its actual craft or the story behind it all. Do I like his music because I associate it with some constructed sense of "authenticity"? Does being culturally uninhibited have anything to do with what people describe as "natural" or "truthful" or "real"? Would I like Daniel Johnston's music as much if it weren't equipped with the story of his bipolar disorder? These elements are difficult to ignore when attempting to negotiate an honest relationship with Daniel Johnston and his music.
Thing is, my answers are immaterial. The questions are warranted for any artist who is auto-described (ridiculously) as a "genius," credited mostly to the disease, but musical taste is fluid. What Daniel Johnston's music does for me is point to this rarely discussed, dynamic aspect of taste. As much as I have championed so-called avant-garde music, its self-imposed avoidances are actually found and embraced in Daniel Johnston's music, and it's simply refreshing to my ears. His music's actually expressive of something, and unabashedly so, helping me once again celebrate subjectivity rather than fight it. Sure, it can often be trite and predictable, and sure you could blame it on his disease, but any sort of righteousness deflates under serious challenge: the meaning of Johnston's music is and always will be malleable.
It's hard to articulate an appreciation of "simple pop songs" without resorting to surfacy observations. Since Don't Be Scared -- originally self-released on cassette and known as Johnston's second full-length release -- comes with so many endearing qualities, perhaps the artificial superficiality is really what's important. From the slapdash "The Story of an Artist," to the Dylan-borrowing "I Had Lost My Mind," to the gloomy "Going Down," what's notable is the intent, the execution, the clarity. Never mind theoretical arguments over aesthetics; this is a documentation that's actually lucid. It's vibrant, colorful, and self-indulgent in the best possible way, all elements to which pop music often aspires and would likely achieve if it weren't so invested in financial concerns.
Since virtually all the songs feature a desolate Johnston on piano, Don't Be Scared lacks the unique chord organ blues of Yip/Jump Music or the vampirific soundworld of 1990, but it showcases how Johnston's creativity and talent shouldn't automatically be attributed to his disease. And with the decidedly off-kilter intro of "Mother Mom Said," the improvised, disconnected vocals on "Stars on Parade," and the downright bizarre "Something More" -- qualities artists now adopt in order to get their albums labeled "quirky" or "idiosyncratic" -- you really begin to realize how the underlying narrative of Johnston obscures more than clarifies anything. So, what now? Do you consider these attributes transitory and ignore or dismiss them? Do you chalk it all up to his bipolar disorder? Fuck that. Daniel Johnston's musical and cultural worth cannot be reduced so simply. As much as the bipolar disorder may have hypothetically provided or denied Johnston, it can't take away the meaning that I discern from the music.
2007: The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
These days, we think of The Modern Lovers’ self-titled 1976 album as an obvious classic. It may come as some surprise, then, that Jonathan Richman and his band were recording for five years before they found a label to release their material. Despite interest from A&M and Warner Brothers as early as 1971, The Modern Lovers’ music remained unreleased until Richman struck a deal with Beserkely Records in 1975. Even then, the resulting album was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Beserkely cobbled together the debut release from a series of raw-sounding demo sessions, produced mostly by John Cale in 1972. To this day, Richman doesn’t even consider The Modern Lovers a proper album.
Sanctuary Records’ expanded reissue ups the Frankenstein quotient, adding eight additional tracks to Beserkely’s nine. The new material is culled from The Modern Lovers’ first sessions, in late 1971, and later demos recorded in 1973 and 1974. While labels looking to sell fans on a reissue often dilute the original by tacking on any old outtake or B-side, Sanctuary’s choices are sound. Many of the extra songs are every bit as good as the core material, and even the three alternate versions of songs appearing on the Beserkely version (“Someone I Care About,” “Modern World,” and “Roadrunner”) are different and interesting enough to earn their keep.
The Modern Lovers’ oft-covered first track, “Roadrunner,” might be the best rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Competitors like The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and The Who’s “My Generation” just don’t sustain multiple listens the way “Roadrunner” does. One can only take so much of Mick Jagger going on about sexual frustration, but “Roadrunner” somehow never gets old. Like the vast majority of timeless rock songs, “Roadrunner” is nothing more than a few simple guitar chords, with upbeat carnival organ harmonies elevating the singer’s slacker drawl. We find its narrator speeding down the Massachusetts highway, his blasting stereo plowing through feelings of isolation. Everyone who’s been 18 in American can identify with the pure love of freedom behind lyrics like, “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ And I’ll be out all night.” When Richman says, “Now you sing, Modern Lovers,” and the entire band joins in for the scraggly but spirited chorus, “Radio on!,” it feels like a mantra, or a manifesto.
If this makes The Modern Lovers seem like something of a ‘50s throwback, that’s only part of the paradox that makes them exciting. The album mixes old-fashioned romanticism and “Roadrunner”’s brand of Rebel Without a Cause fantasy with the ironic, irreverent asides of a band known for presaging punk. The Modern Lovers contains a song called “Old World” and a song called “Modern World,” both of which were recorded during the 1972 Cale sessions. The former praises Richman’s parents and insists, “I want to keep my place in the old world/ I want to keep my place in the arcane”; in the latter, he sings, “I’m in love with the USA/ I’m in love with the modern world” and advises anyone who doesn’t agree to “Put down the cigarette/ And drop out of BU.” What Richman shares with both ‘50s rock and ‘70s punk is a deep-seated disdain for hippies and pseudo-intellectuals. He’s no philistine, as we discover on “Pablo Picasso” (“The girls would turn the color of an avocado/ And he would drive down the street in his El Dorado”), but his aesthetic is decidedly working class, and he likes it that way.
Though The Modern Lovers are best known for their raucous rock songs, their quieter moments are also worth a listen. When he slows down, Richman can be hilarious and insightful at the same time. On “I’m Straight,” a 1973-4 demo track, he vaunts his own clean lifestyle in an attempt to woo the girl he likes away from her stoner boyfriend, “Hippie Johnny.” “I’m straight,” he sings, over minimal, muted guitar and drums, “And I want to take his place.” The song is an indictment of constantly-stoned flower children, but it goes a step farther, making the emphatically uncool claim that drugs are mere escapism. “I think if these guys, if they’re really so great/ Tell me why can’t they at least take this place/ And take it straight?” he wonders in his rambling, monotone fashion. “Why always stoned?”
But Richman’s lyrical talents extend beyond humor and social critique. “Hospital” is a delicate, mournful love song that begins with the arresting words, “When you get out of the hospital/ Let me back into your life.” Richman sings slowly and earnestly, as though he doesn’t know from moment to moment what he’ll say next. Occasionally, his voice explodes in a barrage of organ-backed doubt and confusion. As in most of the band’s love songs, including “She Cracked” and “Someone I Care About” on The Modern Lovers, physical and mental illness, as well as loneliness, figure prominently.
The idea that a great album must be the product of a singular vision has produced some of the tackiest concept records of all time. The Modern Lovers, one of the most influential albums of the past 50 years, proves that something as uncomplicated as a stable of rough but inspired rock songs can be more effective than all the studio-slick song cycles in the world.
2000: Aimee Mann - Bachelor No. 2 or, the last remains of the dodo
It’s safe to say Aimee Mann never thought she’d be at risk of overexposure. When Bachelor No. 2 came out, however, that’s just what happened.
Interscope Records didn’t hear a single in her new record when she brought it to the label after completing it. Mann responded by touring, raising enough money to buy the record back, eventually releasing the album on her own SuperEgo Records. Mann finished the year by contributing songs (some from Bachelor No. 2) to the Paul Thomas Anderson film, Mangolia. Critics loved the record. Tom Cruise sang “Wise Up” on movie screens across the country, and Mann was nominated for an Oscar. (She lost it to Phil Fucking Collins, but beggars can’t be choosers.)
It’s to Mann’s credit that Bachelor No. 2 transcended the media flurry that preceded and followed its arrival. These well-crafted, baroque pop songs were unlike anything Mann had ever done. Her work with ‘80s pop band ‘Til Tuesday was more radio-friendly, and the songs on her previous records – 1993’s Whatever and 1996’s I’m with Stupid – were less subtle, thematically and sonically.
Just like her hero, Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces is about the similarities between relationships and political warfare, much of Bachelor No. 2 is about the thin line between relationships and business. This angle, oddly, makes these songs about rejection more personal than her previous work. “It doesn’t really help that you can never say what you’re looking for,” she sings coolly on “Nothing Is Good Enough.” “But,” she continues, “you’ll know it when you hear it/ Know it when you see it walk through the door.” Label executive or uncommunicative lover? In the end, it doesn’t matter.
Although a handful of producers worked on Bachelor No. 2, the record’s sound is consistent. It’s so finely detailed that aspects of a song’s arrangement aren’t obvious until the fourth or fifth listen. Mann keeps her usual method of steadily strumming a guitar over an almost-hip-hop rhythm, but the producers – mainly Jon Brion, known for layered, pointillistic arrangements – provide tape loops, string flourishes, and soaring background vocals. The contrast between Mann’s clear voice and the intricate production is striking, and the approach benefits the songs.
As for the songs, Mann’s knack for melody has never been better, nor has her lyrical prowess. The opening line of “Deathly” – “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?” – was reportedly the main inspiration for the Magnolia screenplay. “Deathly” is so confident, so defiant that it wouldn’t have worked as anything but the record’s centerpiece. Its majestic guitar solo alone is the stuff of career-highlight reels (either that of Mann or Brion, who played the solo). Even the record’s sole misstep, the plodding “It Takes All Kinds,” starts with a hell of a lyric: “As we were speaking of the devil, you walked right in/ Wearing hubris like a medal you revel in/ But it’s me at whom you’ll level your javelin.”
Aimee Mann has never matched Bachelor No. 2. She’s come close, especially with 2005’s organic, straight-ahead rock record The Forgotten Arm, but Mann will likely never again achieve Bachelor’s combination of production, songwriting, and performance.
1966: Sun Ra - Monorails and Satellites
Musicians have been making "future music" since humankind was self-aware of existing in a modern period and correspondingly excited for what was to come. Such compositions can be considered both ahead of their time and also showcase the artist's personal vision of Tomorrowland. At times innovative, “future music” is often just overproduced, audiophile crap that will eventually end up on a free compilation album provided by Bose as a show-off CD for their new sound system. Nevertheless, it seems somewhat obvious that when a technologically advanced instrument enters the musical universe, it usually makes the more progressive artists giddy and provides a strong catalyst to make forward-looking music (Herbie Hancock, Brian Eno, Radiohead, etc.). So, given the massive acceleration in technological advancements over the past 50 years, it really comes as no surprise that musicians have become increasingly infatuated with the future. Perhaps due to the ease of allowing a computer to take on more of the creative workload, there is now a surplus of techno with themes centering on robots, mathematical ascension, oppressive totalitarian regimes, and other now-standard symbols for the future. Has it yet become clichéd that today’s future is routinely envisioned as a cold place where simple synthesized melodies serve as our desperate communication over the daily grind of 4/4 house beats?
Sun Ra was always obsessed with the future. Whether he was shocking the jazz world by using unconventional electric instruments in his Arkestra or serving as Earth's official ambassador to Saturn, Mr. Ra was constantly fixated on the days beyond. Ironically, though, the self-proclaimed "afrofuturist" was constantly looking to the past for the inspiration to best depict his musical visions, particularly to those ancient Egyptian periods which borne his name. Yet for his 1966 solo album Monorails and Satellites, Sun Ra did not revert to the pyramids for inspiration, but instead decided to revisit his roots as a prodigious piano playing youth from Birmingham.
Best known for his maximalist compositions, lingering improvisations, and silly stage costumes, Sun Ra's genius was occasionally obscured by his elaborate (and often gimmicky) image. It is on his rare solo albums where we can get a clear view of the bones of his convoluted imagination. On such instances, he proves it is not necessary to use a modern instrument that mimics satellite noises in order to conjure up images of orbiting spacecraft -- a simple piano can suffice just fine. Whereas Monorails and Satellites may be considered avant-garde in comparison to most solo jazz piano albums (especially among others released in the mid-‘60s), it still serves as Sun Ra's most beautiful, most accessible, and most likeable picture of the future.
The first two songs on Monorails and Satellites, "Space Towers" and "Cogitation," with their percussive, off-rhythm driving chords, stage our future at a bustling place, concentrating more on progression than with patience for the aesthetic. However, the album then softens with Sun Ra playing more pointed, complex lines that transition the mood from a hard-hitting, drunk Duke Ellington into a less-swingy, attention-deficit Thelonious Monk. There are few recurring melodic themes throughout the album, but plenty of stylistic shifts that teeter between the effortlessly gorgeous and the complicated flurry, similar to a later-years John Fahey record. You get the feeling that this is the type of music that George Jetson would listen to when he has his mid-life crisis, eats some trippy mushrooms, and decides to go to a dive jazz bar in the slummy part of Orbit City to see a show. There is no fancy computer-driven music here, just a senile old guy who likes his piano just fine and who can still remember the days when space travel was a novel, exciting phenomenon.
It has been 41 years since the release of Monorails and Satellites, and we are still fixated to our televisions when astronauts have problems returning home from a routine space station mission. Our world has changed a great deal (but not really), and unfortunately, the future appears increasingly more grim than hopeful. Maybe that’s why Sun Ra’s legacy has stuck around so long (his Arkestra continues to outlive him) -- listening to his abstract-to-the-point-of-playful compositions foretell of a simpler, if not zany, life ahead.
1995: Whiskeytown - Faithless Street
“In retrospect, I knew that was the last optimism I was gonna have for a long time.” - Ryan Adams
The cliché about Ryan Adams is that he always knows exactly what he’s doing. That every pratfall and every “fuck you” and every bit of record company bating is just a calibrated put-on. Indeed, his five years in Whiskeytown were years well-spent; he was an insufferable little bitch right from the get-go (the band only produced three proper albums, but the lineup changes were in the teens), and by the time it all crumbled down around him, he was Paul Westerberg, he was Gram Parsons. A guy who could melt your heart with two chords and an “ooh-la-la” before belting you one in the teeth and stealing your french fries or your girlfriend.
But if Adams always had one hand on the wheel, it doesn’t show on Faithless Street, Whiskeytown’s 1995 debut. He sounds terrified; his voice flows against his own songwriting, which is achingly confident. On “Midway Park,” a gorgeous double helix of pedal steel arpeggios continually builds and is shattered by the howling, slobbering chorus: “We’ll lie/ We’ll lie/ Don’t tell the truth/ Just lie.” On the doleful title track, Adams admits, “I started this damn country band/ ’Cause punk rock is too hard to sing.”
Faithless Street was reissued by Outpost in 1998, refurbished and expanded nearly twofold. Three of the nine bonus tracks -- “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” “16 Days,” and “Yesterday’s News” -- are copped from the Stranger’s Almanac album, but they sound better here, especially the classic “Excuse Me” (ravaged on Almanac as a duet with Alejandro Escovedo).
The real gem, though, is “Desperate Ain’t Lonely,” on which Adams shares vocals with violinist Caitlin Cary. There’s a definite tension there that isn’t sexual (not to my knowledge, anyway) or the result of creative differences (she stuck it out until the very end). It’s just their voices. He sounds wrecked, she sounds strong. She’s moving on, he’s not.
And some might say he never did.
1987: The House of Love - The German Album / The House of Love
Here's another set of lovingly packaged reissues from Renascent -- Britain’s foremost archivists of out-of-print and often painfully overlooked guitar rock -- of The House of Love’s self-titled 1988 debut and their super rare 1987 singles collection The German Album (so named due to its original release in, you guessed it, Germany). Two albums that, since their release, deserve to be recognized as touchstones for many popular trends in British pop and rock: from shoegaze to Britpop to whoever the hell NME and Q have plastered all over their covers this month.
The House of Love fit somewhere in between the tail end of The Smiths and the rise of The Stone Roses on the British rock timeline; in fact, the sounds of those two bands present a good basis from which to approach these albums. Less emotive and literate (read: less pretentious) than Morrissey, but more focused and articulate (read: smarter) than Ian Brown, Guy Chadwick’s voice seems to melt between the guitars, his oblique lyrics never less than insightful, with hints of political awareness and a philosophical muse poking through the nonchalant façade. It’s a side Chadwick shows on “Welt,” when he proclaims, “I would like to criticize.” However, the band certainly makes it difficult to critique when the results are so pristine, some 20 years on.
While The German Album was never conceived as a whole, it arguably contains a stronger set of songs, largely due to the urgent delivery of the earliest 12-inch singles. The first four tracks — “Destroy the Heart,” “Shine On,” “Real Animal,” and “Nothing To Me” — stand up to any like-minded tracks from the era, recalling the moody anthems of predecessors The Chameleons and Echo and the Bunnymen, especially the latter’s work on Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here.
The House of Love, on the other hand, is moodier and slower, just missing classic status by a few cuts. Leadoff track “Christine” is the best song that The Jesus and Mary Chain never wrote, and if you’re familiar with that band's first two albums — Psychocandy and Darklands — you probably have an idea of how fucking good it might sound. “Salome” reminds me of The Psychedelic Furs, if Richard Butler’s voice had been sanded down to a croon.
In spite of its occasional brilliance, the relative restraint when compared to The German Album forces me to wonder if The House of Love ever should have conceptualized an entire LP. This isn’t to say it’s bad — far from it, in fact. But at times the band’s ambition in the studio is so grandiose it occasionally suffocates the music. The single format, however, gave the band an opportunity to reign in their sound, providing some of the rawness that suited them so well in their early days.
Regardless of its propensity for overproduction, The House of Love still comes out as a beautiful collection of distinctly British pop, a counterpoint to the spare reverb and echo of The German Album. And both — I repeat, BOTH — of these albums belong in any ‘80s rock collection that runs the gamut from post-punk to shoegaze. Yeah, they’re expensive as all hell, and you will probably have to order them online (unless you live in the U.K.), but where’s the fun in finding them easily? These are the kind of albums destined to be tracked down and located by obsessives only. They are truly diamonds in the rough, and they probably wouldn’t shine as bright if they weren’t so hard to come across.